Historic Columbia River Highway - The King
The Columbia River Highway, later renamed
the Historic Columbia River Highway (HRCH), was a technical
and civic achievement of its time, successfully marrying ambitious
engineering with sensitive treatment of the surrounding magnificent
landscape. The Historic Columbia River Highway has gained
national significance because it represents one of the earlier
applications of cliff-face road building utilizing modern
highway construction technologies. It is also the oldest scenic
highway in the United States. The Historic Columbia River
Highway's design and execution were the products of two visionaries,
Samuel Hill, lawyer, entrepreneur, and good road's promoter;
and Samuel C. Lancaster, engineer and landscape architect.
In addition, many citizens provided strong leadership and
advocacy for construction of what they called "The King
To make these scenic wonders more accessible
to an increasingly mobile tourist population, in the late
teens and early 1920s, the National Park Service began constructing
well-engineered roads within parks, such as the Going-to-the-Sun
Road in Glacier National Park and the All-Year Highway in
Yosemite National Park. Predating this National Park Service
initiative, the Historic Columbia River Highway was constructed
through county-state-federal cooperation.
Samuel Hill, once an attorney for James
J. Hill and his large railroad empire, and later a Pacific
Northwest investor and entrepreneur, was Washington state's
most vocal "good roads" spokesman in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. Hill found Oregon lawmakers and
Portland businessmen receptive to the idea of constructing
a major highway along the Columbia River. In 1913, work began
on the Historic Columbia River Highway. Surfaced with Warrenite,
a patented long-wearing and smooth-riding asphaltic-concrete
pavement, the Historic Columbia River Highway was completed
Multnomah County hired Samuel C. Lancaster,
an experienced engineer and landscape architect, to design
the Historic Columbia River Highway. Lancaster was noted for
laying out Seattle's Lake Washington Boulevard in the early
1900s as a component of the city's Olmsted-designed park system.
He accompanied Hill and others to Paris in 1908 to attend
the First International Road Congress. The group also toured
Western Europe to learn about continental road-building techniques.
Following the 1908 Congress Lancaster constructed experimental
roads at Hill's Maryhill Ranch, 120 miles east of Portland
on the Columbia River. Seeing roads in the park-like setting
of the Rhine River Valley inspired Hill to promote construction
of a highway along the Columbia River Gorge. Hill recommended
that Lancaster design the Columbia River Highway.
Lancaster's Highway design emulated European
style road building techniques, while also advancing American
engineering standards. Throughout the Historic Columbia River
Highway, he and other engineers held fast to a design protocol
that included accepting grades no greater than 5 percent,
nor laying out any curves with less than a 100-foot turning
radius. The use of reinforced-concrete bridges, combined with
masonry guard rails, guard walls, and retaining walls brought
together the new and the old-the most advanced highway structures
with the tried and tested. In building the Columbia River
Highway, Lancaster and others artfully created an engineering
achievement sympathetic to this significant natural landscape.
The relationship between the Columbia River
Gorge's natural landscape and the constructed designed landscape
of the Historic Columbia River Highway is told best by Lancaster.
He wrote, "There is but one Columbia River Gorge [that]
God put into this comparatively short space, [with] so many
beautiful waterfalls, canyons, cliffs and mountain domes."
He believed that "men from all climes will wonder at
its wild grandure [sic] when once it is made accessable [sic]
by this great highway."
Several benefactors purchased waterfalls
and other sites lining the Gorge for parks along the Columbia
River Highway. Lancaster's Highway included designed landscapes
at these locations. The masonry guard walls, retaining walls,
and bridges on the pedestrian trails closely resemble those
seen along the Historic Columbia River Highway itself. Lancaster
strove for fluidity of design in interconnecting the Historic
Columbia River Highway with its surrounding natural landscape.
The Columbia River Highway was also a lifeline
connecting Portland with the many commercial and agricultural
areas along the Columbia River. Some promoters saw it as part
of a network of similarly constructed routes radiating out
towards central Oregon and Washington and the Inland Empire
of eastern Washington and northern Idaho, and meeting routes
leading to other parts of the region and the nation.
More popular than its promoters ever envisioned
by the 1930s, the Columbia River Highway was showing signs
of early aging. The widespread use of automobiles and freight
trucks throughout the country caused measurable wear the Highway.
Soon the route so marveled for its advanced engineering, was
deteriorating both physically and philosophically. Motorists
tended to speed through beauty spots, more interested in traveling
from here to there in as short a time as possible. With such
an increase in motor traffic, it was no longer practical for
tourists to stop their vehicles in the middle of the road
to look at a falls or take in a view of the Columbia Gorge.
The Columbia River Highway had become a
vital link in Oregon's and the nation's highway system. By
the late 1930s, construction of Bonneville Dam, a New Deal
project aimed at providing flood control on the Columbia River
and generating electricity, caused a realignment of a portion
of the Highway near Tooth Rock and Eagle Creek, in eastern
Multnomah County. This marked the first major alteration of
the route. It was evident to many that the Highway was outdated
and unable to provide safe, efficient travel for modern motor
The Oregon State Highway Department began
abandoning segments of the Columbia River Highway in the late
1930s upon completion of the new water-level route from Bonneville
Dam to Cascade Locks. This work also segmented the original
alignment, making it unusable even as a pedestrian trail.
By the 1950s, much of the original alignment from Cascade
Locks to Hood River had been sacrificed for the new water-level
route. The Historic Columbia River Highway from Hood River
to Mosier, including the Mosier Twin Tunnels, was also abandoned.
The Tunnels, located in a rockfall zone, were filled with
rubble and allowed to "melt" into the rugged landscape.
Throughout abandoned segments, walls fell over and perennial
weeds grew through the pavement.
By 1954, a new curvilinear water-level route, founded largely
on fill material dredged from the Columbia River, bypassed
the entire Historic Columbia River Highway from Troutdale
to The Dalles. Its designers, too, envisioned this route as
a scenic highway through the Gorge.
Since the early 1950s, the western third
of the Historic Columbia River Highway has served tourist
traffic, carrying visitors by scores of waterfalls. Other
portions in the eastern two-thirds of the route became part
of a local farm-to-market road network. Significant segments
of the Historic Columbia River Highway were sacrificed for
the new road while others were simply abandoned.
By the 1980s, public interest grew for
returning drivable portions of the Historic Columbia River
Highway to their 1920s appearance--based on careful documentation--and
rehabilitating abandoned segments for trail use. Since then,
drivable portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway,
its masonry structures, bridges, and culverts have been repaired
or replaced. The road is a popular tourist destination along
with Multnomah Falls, the most popular natural site in Oregon,
drawing over two-million visitors annually. The Falls are
accessible both from the highway and nearby Interstate 84.
Several contiguous segments of the Historic
Columbia River Highway State Trail, from Moffett Creek to
Cascade Locks, are open for hiking and biking. Trailheads,
located intermittently along this segment, are directly accessible
from Interstate 84 and offer parking and interpretive signage.
The segment from Hood River to Mosier provides 6.5 miles of
trail, including the Mosier Twin Tunnels. Trailheads at either
end offer parking and restroom facilities. In addition, the
west trailhead offers a visitor contact station.
Source: National Park Service
History of the Historic Columbia River
Park Service (source of the above text)
Department of Transportation
Department of Transportation Environmental Services
Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
American Engineering Record HAER
Columbia River Highway bridges spanning various creeks along
the Columbia River Highway, Portland and The Dalles vicinities,
Multnomah and Wasco CountiesOregon